Legislating Language, Mandating Inequality
By James Crawford
This article first appeared in The WorldPaper, July 1996
English, the world's undisputed lingua franca, is anything
but secure in the United States – at least, in the minds of English-speaking
Americans. To many, it seems that today's immigrants, unlike those of "melting
pot" legend, no longer feel an obligation to learn our language. Non-English
speaking populations have expanded by 40 percent in the last decade. Minority
language groups – Hispanics in particular – have become the majority in
a number of communities. Government has responded with an array of bilingual
accommodations: education, voting, court interpreters, drivers' tests,
even tax forms.
Some English speakers worry that Babel is close at hand.
They fear that public services in minority languages, however transitional,
imply a recognition of minority language rights and threaten the hegemony
of English. Multilingualism, in turn, could sap Americans' sense of national
identity and foster balkanization along ethnic lines.
Such concerns are driving a campaign to give English "legal
protection": official status as the sole language of government.
The idea is increasingly popular. Nearly 90 percent of respondents have
endorsed it in some opinion polls. So far, 21
states have adopted "English-only" legislation, restricting
to various degrees the use of other languages for public business.
Similar proposals are now being debated in the U.S. Congress,
where they enjoy the support of Republican leaders. "English has to
be our common language," says House Speaker Newt
Gingrich. "Otherwise we're not going to have a civilization."
Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader and putative Presidential nominee, argues
that "with all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need
the glue of language to help hold us together." President Bill Clinton,
who once signed an English-only law in his home state of Arkansas, has
yet to speak out on the current legislation.
Never before in its 220-year history has the United States
seen fit to adopt an official language. Now,
for the first time, chances are excellent that it will do so. If so, immigrants
as well as indigenous language minorities may find their rights restricted.
Their children could be denied access to bilingual instruction in public
schools. Indian tribes could lose federal help in preventing the extinction
of their ancestral tongues. Citizens who rely on bilingual ballots could
be denied their right to cast an informed vote. Public employees and even
elected officials could be forbidden to use languages other than English
in performing their duties. While the legislation now pending prohibits
discrimination on the basis of language, it does so for English speakers
Such sweeping changes, if enacted, would certainly face
a Constitutional challenge in the courts, highlighting their threat to
free speech and equal protection under the law. Nevertheless, Congress
has chosen to hear only limited testimony on the aims and implications
of "official English" – or its rationale. Linguists, language
educators, ethnic representatives, and civil rights advocates have been
largely excluded from legislative hearings on this issue.
One opponent who was allowed to testify, Edward
Chen of the American Civil Liberties Union, summed up English-only
laws as "unnecessary, patronizing, and divisive." He noted that
the vast majority of U.S. residents are fluent in English – 97 percent,
according to the 1990 census – and most of the others are trying to learn.
In cities like New York and Los Angeles, adult English classes have long
waiting lists of immigrants seeking to enroll, owing to inadequate funding.
Meanwhile, English-only proponents are pressuring Congress
to speed up assimilation – not by providing newcomers more opportunities
to learn English, but by making their lives more difficult with a ban on
even minimal help in other languages. The U.S. English lobby recently criticized
the Government Printing Office for producing 265 foreign-language publications
over the past five years. It neglected to mention that English was the
language of 99.94 percent of federal publications during the same period.
Contrary to melting-pot mythology, the United States has
a long tradition of multilingualism. In 1890, the proportion of non-English
speakers was 4.5 times as great as in 1990. Historically, government has
served Americans in languages as diverse as French, Welsh, Czech, and Cherokee.
A century ago there 600,000 children enrolled in German-English bilingual
instruction, probably a greater percentage than in Spanish-English classrooms
Yet English survived, to put it mildly. Now, as then,
it's the minority tongues that are threatened by a world language that
gets more powerful all the time.
So the question arises: What really troubles the English-only
proponents? Could it be that "bilingualism" has become a
surrogate for other unsettling changes – racial, ethnic, and cultural –
that politicians find dangerous to discuss? Could the attack on language
rights be a stalking horse for more draconian measures? Among English-only
sponsors, Congressman Toby Roth of Wisconsin is refreshingly candid, explaining:
"I want all Americans to be the same. That is my mission."
No one questions the centrality of English in the U.S.A.,
only its exclusive franchise. Linguistic diversity is not only a fact of
life, but also a potential benefit – something
other countries have been quicker to recognize. Hoping to enhance its competitiveness
in the global economy and to promote tolerance at home, Australia recently
adopted a National Policy on Languages. It aims to conserve and develop
the language resources of immigrant and aboriginal communities, while encouraging
English speakers to learn at least one other language deemed vital to trade
Australians are hardly immune to the xenophobia that bedevils
Americans. They simply understand that, in the case of language, guaranteeing
minority rights can serve the national self-interest.
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